The Consequences of 50 Years of Poor Catechesis: 1


apple and booksSomething odd happens once the majority of young Catholics in the U.S. become teenagers – they seem to lose interest in their Catholic Faith.

According to statistics compiled by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), in 2015 there were almost 3.989 million children in parish religious education and Catholic elementary schools in the U.S. (2.631million in CCD [Continuing Catholic Development] programs, and 1.358 million in parochial schools). Assuming these numbers were roughly the same in 2014 that would mean that there should be around 3.989 million young Catholics in both secondary parish religious education programs and in Catholic high schools in 2015.   But according to CARA’s data, there were only 1.219 million young Catholics in secondary parish religious education programs and Catholic high schools in 2015. Some 2.77 million young Catholics were all done learning about their faith.  They  became “Catholic Ed dropouts.”

Perhaps Poor Catechesis = Poor Attendance at Mass

This wouldn’t be a reason to fret if attendance at Mass on Sundays was standing room only. But as CARA also reports, the number of adult Catholics regularly going to mass each week has steadily declined for the past 50 years.  So this high percentage of Catholic Ed dropouts may be part of a much larger problem.  It may just be that poor Catechesis over the last 50 years is the reason why only 24% of adult Catholics go to mass on a weekly basis today.

The chances are good that these teenaged Catholic Ed dropouts are not going to Mass either, and once they become adults they will probably become part of the 76% of adults who go to mass ‘only occasionally,’ if at all. As the Catechists in my parish say, ‘once these kids are confirmed we don’t see the majority of them in church again until they want to get married.’

A Trend – But Not A New One

And this is not a new trend at all. As the slightly modified CARA chart below shows, this high rate of Catholic Ed dropouts has been occurring for just as long as mass attendance has been falling – since at least 1965.

Religious Education 1965 1970 1975 1980 1985 1990 1995 2000 2005 2010 2015
Primary school-age children in parish religious education 3.448m 4.175m 3.880m 3.417m 3.106m 3.144m 3.287m 3.592m 3.438m 2.952m 2.631m
Students in Catholic elementary schools 4.431m 3.359m 2.557m 2.227m 2.005m 1.983m 1.815m 1.800m 1.559m 1.508m 1.358m
Total 7.879m 7.534m 6.437m 5.644m 5.111m 5.127m 5.102m 5.392m 4.997m 4.446m 3.989m
Secondary school-age teens in parish religious education 1.357m 1.280m 1.009m 959,935 831,331 736,188 749,377 760,644 787,033 656,722 635,170
Students in Catholic secondary schools 689,264 1.008m 884,181 838,136 774,216 606,000 638,440 653,723 653,226 611,723 583,885
Total 1.946m 2.288m 1.893m 1.798m 1.605m 1.342m 1.387 1.414m 1.440m 1.268m 1.219m
Catholic Ed “Dropouts” 5.933m 5.246m 4.544m 3.846m 3.506m 3.785m 3.715 3.978m 3.557m 3.178m 2.770m
Dropouts as a % 75% 69% 70% 68% 68% 74% 73% 74% 71% 71% 69%

The raw numbers alone are disconcerting, but as percentages the numbers are jaw dropping. The 2.77 million Catholic Ed dropouts translates into a whopping 69% of young Catholics who apparently felt they had learned all they needed to know about their faith by eighth grade in 2015 – a percentage that has held relatively steady since 1970.  Yet what they learned in eight years of CCD classes or in a Catholic grade school was aimed only at providing children aged 6 to 13 years of age with just very basic instruction in the Catholic Faith.

This 69% is a hefty percentage. It’s possible that some of these Catholic Ed dropouts continued to learn about their Faith and the Church on their own.  On the other hand, is that really likely considering these young people are becoming Catholic Ed dropouts just as they are becoming teenagers?  It is far more likely that their thoughts are turning to or have turned to more worldly things.  Additionally, if their parents are not setting a good example for them by practicing their faith and going to mass every week, which is probably the case, there is no reason to think that the majority of these teenagers will go to mass either.  And it does appear that this is all attributable to cause and effect since the rate of catholic Ed dropouts has held steady for over 50 years just as the rate of weekly mass attendance has continued to fall.

These statistics may also explain why 60 % of Catholics believe, like Nancy Pelosi, that same-sex marriage is perfectly compatible with Catholic Doctrine, or that pre-marital sex, cohabitation, contraception, divorce, or abortion are not such bad things. Because they do not have sufficient knowledge of the logic and “why’s’’ of their Faith, they are easily swayed by secular emotional arguments.

The Connection Between Learning and Living

Interestingly enough the 24% of adult Catholics who do attend mass each week percentage is almost the inverse of the 70% of Catholics who have ‘dropped out’ from learning about their faith.  So there may well be a direct connection between continuing to learn about your Faith, mass attendance, and living a Catholic life.

Catholics who attend a parochial grade school, a Catholic high school, and a Catholic University, probably know a bit more about the Catholic Church and their Faith than those Catholics whose only instruction in the Faith came from eight years of CCD classes or eight years in a parochial grade school. And even though the parochial school and Catholic high school attendees are in the minority, they appear to make up the majority of certified Catechists today.

This is not to imply that eight years of parochial school or CCD instruction has no value or that Catechists are not good teachers. Catholic children aged 6 to 13 years of age need be educated in the fundamentals of their faith, but Catechists, parochial schools, and CCD classes can only do so much.

My wife, a Certified Catechist (also a parochial grade school and Catholic high school graduate) has been teaching CCD for over 16 years, and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that she is an excellent Catechist. Over the years I’ve had many hours of conversation with her about the classes she has taught, how the CCD program in our parish is structured, and what is being taught at the different grade levels.  There is also a wealth of material available on Catholic Religious Education to anyone who wants to do some research.  The picture is not a pretty one.

Catechesis today is just not cutting it. A number of essays have been written on the topic supporting this contention.  Here are just five written over the past 20 years that are well worth reading: “Why American Catechists Don’t Teach the Catechism” from the EWTN Library, “Why Johnny Doesn’t Believe II” at Catholic Culture; “Crises in Catholic Doctrine – The Grave State of Religious Education in America,” at the Boston Catholic Journal“Why Johnny Can’t Pray – Why Catholic Religious Education is Doomed to Fail,” at Patheos; and “Is Catechesis Possible in a Narcissistic Age?” at Crisis magazine. Many of the comments after the articles are worth reading as well as they offer up some of sillier ideas that have passed as Catechesis over the years.

CCD programs can differ greatly from parish to parish and from diocese to diocese. Every Diocese and parish in the country have the latitude to put together its own program of Catechesis, and there are a variety of good resources Religious Education Directors can draw on for assistance.  So there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to Religious Education, which is a good thing. But there are also no hard and fast guidelines that must be followed either.  This is not such a good thing.

Typically children attending public school who are enrolled in CCD programs have to wait until they are in eighth, ninth, or tenth grade to be Confirmed.   Children attending a parochial grade school, however, are often Confirmed when they are in fifth or sixth grade.  In some parishes, children even receive the three Sacraments of initiation (Baptism, The Eucharist, and Confirmation) all at the same time.  Additionally, some parishes offer CCD for only 8 years (grade school only), while in others the CCD program is for 12 years (grade school and high school).

The lack of guidelines resulted in a great deal of experimentation in the 70s, 80s, and beyond when it came to Religious Ed and CCD programs. And this experimentation is apparently even continuing today as a number of Catholic parishes have implemented a religious education program called ALPHA that was developed by the Evangelical Church of England.  In the case of ALPHA, Catholic Doctrine needs to become an ‘add-on’ to what is essentially a Protestant / Reformed Theology approach to teaching about Christianity.

Eight is Not Enough

One problem common to most CCD programs is that since CCD instruction takes place after school, in the evenings or on weekends, it ends up competing with leisure time activities such as playtime, sports, dance, cheerleading, hobbies, social media, TV, movies, and so on. So it is not very high on most kids’ lists of favorite things to do.

A second problem is that kids will take the lead from their parents. If their parents are not practicing Catholics attending mass and setting good examples for them, it’s a sure bet that most of the children in CCD programs will turn into lapsed Catholics as well.

A third problem is that there is either no or insufficient instruction in the area of Apologetics and how Catholicism differs from Protestantism. Considering that we live in a largely Protestant country, instruction in Apologetics is sorely needed.  Why we believe what we believe, the importance of Faith and Reason, and why Catholic Doctrine is superior to Reformed Theological beliefs are all discussion topics most Catholics simply cannot weigh in on because they have no knowledge in any of these areas.

A fourth problem is that eight years of Faith Formation in CCD or in a parochial grade school is simply not enough instruction in the Faith to enable most young Catholics or even many adult Catholics to effectively counter the anti-Catholic and anti-Christian messaging that is so prevalent today.

There may be some parish teen groups that are well attended that provide good Faith formation instruction for teenagers, but if the typical parish teen group is anything like the one in my parish the participation rate is nothing to cheer about. This is not meant to cast dispersions on all the thousands of dedicated youth group coordinators.   It is only being realistic.  The numbers just do not indicate that there is a great deal of interest in participating in Catholic youth groups.   This suggests that 12 years of Faith Formation should be a standard.

If the 69% Catholic Ed dropout rate was still accompanied by a weekly mass attendance rate of 55% or more, it would be reasonable to conclude that adult Catholics are successfully dealing with the consumer culture and sexual freedom messaging the media pounds us with 24/7. But with a Catholic adult weekly mass attendance rate of 24% and the scary high percentage of ‘cafeteria’ Catholics, it seems that most Catholics are not successfully dealing with the ’I’m Ok, you’re Ok, if it feels good, do it’ secular ideology that is being pushed today.  And if mature adults are not successfully dealing with it, it’s a sure bet children aren’t either.

Children who attend a Catholic grade school are at least in a more Catholic environment throughout the day than children who are attending public schools and attending CCD programs once a week in the evening or on the weekend. But all children today are contending with secular (dare I say heathen?) messages from a wide variety of sources on a daily basis. Children attending public schools are also being force-fed a curriculum that teaches them how to have protected sex and tells them homosexuality and having two mommy’s or two daddies are all perfectly fine.  On top of that, there is no such thing as moral truth, there are only scientific facts and everything else is opinion and all opinions are perfectly valid.

Common sense dictates that as these children become teenagers and adults many of them will become confused, become cafeteria Catholics or lapsed Catholics, or even experience a complete loss of faith – all because they have not learned the “why’s” of their Faith and have not been adequately prepared to defend their Faith or its teachings.

  “Part II Tomorrow: Tackling the Problem”

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31 thoughts on “The Consequences of 50 Years of Poor Catechesis: 1”

  1. Pingback: Confirmation Part 3: It’s a Conundrum, But Not Really - Catholic Stand

  2. Pingback: Death and Taxes Are Still the Only Two Certainties in Life - Catholic Stand

  3. A lot is asked of 1 hour per week of religious instruction for 30 weeks per year.

    By the way, don’t count on much from people who’ve had 8+4+4 years of Catholic elementary, secondary, and college schooling. Most of what they get that CCD kids don’t is more contact time for osmosis and here’s the bad news: osmosis isn’t one of the Sacraments of Initiation.

  4. It isn’t just a matter of knowing what the Church teaches. That’s important. What is more important is that the information you are taught leads you to do something. The first is an act of faith, namely, professing that Jesus Christ is True God and True Man. From this profession of faith, which is a gift from God, many supernatural acts are to follow.

    Acts are what counter the influence of the three enemies, the World, the Devil, and the Flesh.

    The faith taught to our children withers away because it is not ACT-ivated.

    Who would go to a martial arts gym or a pottery studio and be satisfied with merely hearing about karate or pottery? It is normal that you’d do something. Same is true in our Churches. We hear about the spiritual combat, but this hearing does not lead us to act.

    One time, I met at the grocery store a man I knew, a lifelong weekly communicant. I had a mental insight about him that he was filled with the Holy Sacrament of the Altar, but none of them had been activated.

    Activate your catechism. Activate your faith. Activate your communions. Make acts of faith, hope, charity, repentance, reparation, petition, etc.

  5. About ten years ago, my diocese of Phoenix, Arizona began giving Confirmation at First Communion age. Using some theoretical babbling about how “this is better because the early church did it that way” and “extra graces” and whatnot. Of course in theory, theory and practice are the same… but in practice, they are not. Now our parish CCD programs empty out at age 7 or 8. And our out-of-touch bishop doesn’t seem to care.

    1. Could it be that you’re out of touch and the bishop(s) and the Vatican are marching to a different drummer ? You don’t corral a universal church if it you want it to remain relevant.

    2. Your beef is not with me. CCD classes in the local parishes here now empty out after age 7. Is that what is best for the Church?

    3. Good question – what is good for the Church ? Of course, the same ramifications
      from any answer are the same as asking what is bad for the Church. I believe in
      karma, in corporeal and spiritual punishment. institutions ranging from mega type corporations to nations are subject to the same law of karma. The CC committed many sins as an institution and just as it can take years for divine or secular payback ( ” …until you pay the last jot and tittle…” Matt 5:26 ) what is due will come true. Augustine telling moms that their child would never see God because they weren’t baptized is just as libel as equating missing mass with mass murder – in so far as both warrant hell forever. History moves on, reason and consciousness take on new growth and that which cannot stand, stumbles and falls, but eventually gets picked up, dusted off and guided anew. Same church, different age. Truth in rags; truth arrayed in the proverbial wedding garment the parable guest chose not to put on and so was tossed out of the wedding.. Francis is trying his best to help us understand a new way of thinking, unfortunately those who desperately want to drink old wine in old skins will still taste gall.

    4. The “CC” committed no sin and commits no sin. The “CC” is the Mystical Body OF Christ and – while individuals within it can sin – the Church cannot sin. Re: Jorge B: clearly he is NOT trying to make things clear. His ambiguity is either studied/intentional or simply stupid.

    5. I think one of the Borgia popes would have fit much better with this age. “His”
      ambiguity is measured for the future CC – and the Vatican broke people on the
      rack and burned them in all our names; in the name of the entire mystical body.

    6. So in your view, Bishop Olmsted would be in-touch, caring, and not babbling if confirmation were held off till the moment of death? Then even adults would keep going to catechism classes?

    7. Wow Kevin, that’s a really lame response.

      I said that since children’s “Catholic graduation” is now at age 8 (and don’t deny it, everyone knows that Confirmation is exactly that), high school CCD classes pretty much no longer exist.

      And yes, for what it’s worth, if the parishes in my part of town had any occasional adult education classes, taught by qualified clergy, I’d be first in line to sign up.

    8. High school catechesis has not existed outside Catholic high schools ever in any numbers in this country and if the kids stop going to PSR after First Communion, that mostly says something about the parents.

      You have one of the best bishops in the country (my dioceses has the very best!) so you ought to appreciate what he *is* doing rather than what you think he should be doing. Why don’t you read “Into the Breach” and start doing what it recommends?

    9. “High school catechesis has not existed outside Catholic high schools ever in any numbers in this country”

      When Confirmation is in high school, high school kids attend classes. Parishes don’t end up cancelling their high school CCD classes for total lack of interest. Done and done. I don’t know what “PSR” means, maybe that’s a local acronym in your area.

      As for your second statement, I’ve written in many other articles about the paper you mentioned. It was so vague as to be almost useless. None of the parishes I attend have even mentioned it. I’ll stop there.

    10. High school catechesis has not existed outside Catholic high schools ever in any numbers in this country…
      –Kevin Aldrich

      The time to begin fixing any mistake is now.

      if the kids stop going to PSR after First Communion, that mostly says something about the parents.

      Yes, we parents shoulder some of the blame. Yet in an Apostolic Church the bishops and pastors are there to help us and where have they been? Name a diocese with a strong commitment to adult catechesis for all adult Catholics in the diocese.

  6. It is interesting that what you haven’t considered – the elephant in the picture – is those parts of first millennium doctrine that are staggering under the weight of their own obsolescence and can no longer
    be synthesized into any coherent 21st century form.

    1. christopherschaefer

      A distinguishing feature of Catholicism is that doctrine cannot be changed—not even by a pope. A pope or council can officially “define” what ALREADY is part of the Apostolic and Patristic Tradition, but they can neither change doctrine—nor invent new doctrine. (We share this same principle with the Orthodox; where Catholics and Orthodox diverge is in what we consider to be part of that doctrinal Tradition.)
      While Protestantism generally holds that doctrines can become obsolete as society changes—hence their near-universal acceptance of Situational Ethics and Relativism—Catholicism rejects these as heretical. The fact that so many who self-identify as Catholic today accept these very UN-Catholic positions points to the “lack of catechesis”—or something else I hinted at in my previous comment…

    2. ” The fact that so many who self-identify as Catholic today accept these very UN-Catholic positions points to the “lack of catechesis”

      You seem to think that whatever is taught sticks like glue – eventually reason will upstage
      any idea not grounded in reason.

      “If you cling to an idea as the unalterable truth, then when the truth does come in person and knock at your door, you will not be able to open the door and accept it.” – Udana Sutta

    3. christopherschaefer

      That last quote is from a Buddhist scripture. I thought we were talking about Catholicism.

    4. Truth is nothing else but adequatio rei et intellectus, i.e. the understanding of things as they are. The proper residence of truth is in the mind when it expresses a true proposition. It is thus in a proposition which affirms or denies a state of affairs that the primary locus of truth is to be found. This always has been the philosophical and Catholic understanding of truth. It implies that the truths of the faith are unchangeable.

  7. christopherschaefer

    Another essay on the “lack of catechesis”—that continues to ignore the obvious. The Liturgy ALWAYS has been the primary “catechism”. If one radically changes the form of public worship, one radically changes the beliefs. ‘Lex orandi, lex credendi’. This is a fundamental anthropological reality. 16th century Protestant Reformers understood this principal quite well, which is why the leaders of each sect always began by creating a new form of Sunday ‘worship service’ which reflected their particular “more authentic version” of Christianity.
    These numerous essays on the “lack of catechesis” always point to the decline as having begun c. 1965. Can anyone think of something else that happened in approximately the same year? (Hint: it involved the Mass…)

    1. The data presented shows the “Dropouts as a %” to be consistent since 1965. BUT the data only goes back to 1965. So there is nothing to support your claim that the decline began then. I know that sites like this want to believe that pre-V2 was just a Reverent Wonderland of Latin Goodness but that wasn’t the case at all.

  8. There is, unfortunately, another take on this besides “Catechesis today is just not cutting it.” And it is that catechesis today is exactly and precisely what those in power in the church [well at least those who think they are in power in the church] want it to be, from bishops to pastors to the inevitable ex-nun who rules over education. .Example: I was a catechist for many years and, in one parish I was in, I found out that in hiring anyone for any of the plethora of full time paid positions there, a critical question was “and your thoughts on the Catechism?” If the reply in any way indicated that the applicant accepted the Catechism, liked it, or, worse, would use it in his/her job and/or catechetical instruction, they automatically were no longer considered for the position. Similary if they even hinted that women should not be priests or voluntary anal sex was not a form of loving hospitality, they were not hired. They also taught that if some teenager wanted to think of the Eucharist as symbol only that was just fine. This is the difference between “poor” catechesis and intentionally deconstructive education. And note very well, esp this year, every four years a major part of this “catechesis” is that a. it is a mortal sin to vote against a democrat, eg for a republican and b. it is an act of social virtue to vote for a democrat. Guy McC, from bishopslung, San Antonio Texas

  9. So true. At the high school level they need to be taught apologetics. Suggestion: start with a good CATHOLIC Bible study program. Protestants do a much better job at teaching their youth how to pull Catholic teens and young adults away from the faith.

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